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Imoudu’s release led to re-organisation of Labour

This is the fourth edition of the serial on OWEI LAKEMFA’s latest work: “One hundred years of trade unionism in Nigeria”. The third part was published yesterday.

IMOUDU’S biographer, Baba Oluwide wrote that: “A week after the German instrument of surrender was gladly accepted, the war cabinet of Mr. Winston Churchill of Great Britain despatched to all their possessions, the world over, for amendments to the Defence Regulations (under which Imoudu was detained) Speculations were rife that Imoudu would soon be released”.

Labour leaders and workers protesting fuel price increases

Imoudu’s release came on May 20, 1945 following a letter delivered to him by the colonial District Officer in Auchi informing him of the “…revocation of Sections 57 to 63 of the Nigerian General Defence Regulations, 1941” under which he was detained.

What followed on June 2, 1945 when Imoudu set foot on Lagos soil after his release was perhaps the biggest anti­-colonial rally ever held in the country. Oluwide wrote that vigil was kept by Lagosians and “from Oshogbo (Osun State) down to Iddo, and mostly at Lafenwa, the train was mobbed by workers, railmen not to be outdone and peasants. They formed guards of honour. Children were upfront in the guards, chanting, waving and singing.

Many had come from surrounding hamlets and villages to see the man lionised by the colonial authorities… At Iddo, traffic was held up for an hour. Buses could only snake slowly through the crowd. Mounted on a brown horse, a stallion was Imoudu.” He rode into central Lagos to a reception in the Oko Awo play ground with an unprecedented crowd of some 50,000 people attending.

Father of nationalism

Reverend Adelakun Howells, the representative of the Lord Bishop of Lagos gave the opening prayers, while the father of nationalism in Nigeria, Herbert Macaulay, who was chairman of the occasion concluded that with Imoudu’ s release, “there is not the slightest doubt that the liberation of this country is very near.”

Dr Nnamdi Azikwe, General Secretary of the then only Pan-Nigerian political party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Camerouns, NCNC, and future president of Nigeria in his oration said: “Imoudu paid the penalty of leadership. He trod the stony road of Golgotha. He bore the cross of Calvary. He was crucified. He was resurrected. He has returned to us in flesh”

In conclusion, he charged Imoudu “Courage brother, do not stumble. Though the path be dark as night; There’s a star to guide the humble, Trust in God and do the right”

Azikiwe’s poetic rendition and charge was one of many. One of the most memorable was published in that day’s Daily Comet newspaper by an emergent poet, Moses. S. Ekpenyong who greeted Imoudu with the following lines.

“Man took you away to suffer,
God has brought you back to prosper;

Two and a half years in exile,

We’re sure you’re now more virile.

To fight the cause of the worker”

Imoudu in his response to the Oko Awo reception and the fine thoughts that poured out, told the gathering: “I have gone into exile for training I have done very little towards trade unionism. Without the confidence of the workers, I would not have triumphed. I am prepared to die for Nigerian trade unionism, for the working class.”

Imoudu was born in 1902 in Oke Ora in the then Afemai Division, Benin Province (now capital of Edo State). His father, Allanghagba Imodu was a soldier in the West African Frontier Force who lost seven of his nine sons in The Gambia his last station of service.

During critical times in his trade union career especially in rallies, protests and strikes, the colourful Imoudu dorned the colonial British army uniform of his father complete with service medals and charms. He had finished his primary school education in 1927, moved to Lagos the following year where he worked with the Post and Telegraphs Department as a linesman before moving, in1929 to the Nigeria Railway as a labourer.

In his first major victory on the trade union turf, he had in 1941 led 3,000 protesting railway men in a demonstration to the colonial Government House then occupied by Sir Bernard Bourdillon. On this occasion, the protesting workers had won their major grievance for de-casualisation in the railways and succeeded in forcing the hated Chief Mechanical Engineer, Mr. W. G. W. Wilson to resign.

Two years later, the colonial authorities decided that Imoudu’s cup had overflowed. Here was a chief agitator against British colonialism when the colonial master was engaged in a life or death struggle against Hitlerite Germany.  To check freedom agitators like Imoudu, the British government had imposed in 1941 a Nigerian General Defence Regulation under which agitators could be detained. A 1942 order under this regulation made strikes and lockouts illegal for the entire duration of the war.

On November 20, 1942, Churchill in a world broadcast told the British people that “The dawn of 1943 will soon loom red before us, and we must brace ourselves to cope with the trails and problems of what must be a stem and terrible year.”

Major source of worry to colonialism

As Churchill spoke in Britain, his colonial officials in Nigeria were trying to decide what to do to a major source of worry to colonialism. About the time of Churchill’s speech, Labour historian, Wogu Ananaba wrote that “complaints were rife that the cost of living had risen considerably.

The complaints set many union leaders thinking. Rumours spread that railway workers under the powerful influence of Imoudu were planning to begin a new agitation for wage increase. ­Rumours of plans to derail trains and remove vital railway stores if the demands were not granted leaked into official quarters and the administration suspected Imoudu to be behind these plans”!!

Based on these unsubstantiated rumours, the colonialists made a pre-emptive move. The date chosen was January 23, 1943. First the railway authorities struck by dismissing Imoudu from service for alleged misconduct and insubordination. A few hours later as Imoudu contemplated this development and what his next move should be, agents of the colonial authority swooped on him at his 72, Patey Street, Ebute Metta, Lagos home, forced him into a black car and sped off. While sandwiched in the car, his captors brandished before him a detention order signed by Governor Bourdillon which read:

“I am satisfied that it is necessary to prevent you, Michael Athokhamien Ominu Imoudu, acting in a manner prejudicial to public safety and defence.” The next time anything was heard of Imoudu was at the Benin prisons. A week after he got there, he led a prisoners riot. Recalled Imoudu. “The food they were serving us then was not good enough for dogs. I said this was unacceptable. After the riot, the prison governor called all of us and asked who was the cause of the riot.”

Imoudu in his fearless manner stepped forward. The colonialists realised that his spirit could not be confined within prison walls and that if anything, he could spread the anti-colonial message amongst prisoners. So he was taken from prison and deported into internal exile in Auchi, the local headquarters of his birth place. In later years, apartheid South Africa perfected this system of internal banishment of freedom fighters to home regions called Bantustans.

When Imoudu returned to Lagos in 1945, there was a groundswell of opposition to colonial rule. Amongst workers, this took the form of an agitation for a Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) the unions claimed that between 1942 and when the war ended in 1945, the cost of living had risen by 200 per cent. The British colonialists in their characteristic duplicity had paid European civil servants increased bonuses immediately after the war while leaving unchanged the income of African civil servants.

Robin Cohen in his Labour And Politics In Nigeria wrote: “Apart from banning strikes during the war, the colonial government had stressed the strategic importance of Empire goods as a reason for holding down wage demands, but apparently remained quite oblivious of the increased awareness of the wage-earners that their labour was being used to uphold an international economic system with whose purpose their interests were not necessarily coincident.”

Imoudu’s release

Imoudu’s release was part of the colonialists plan to defuse the crisis. Rather than this, Imoudu merely swam along with the strike current. An attempt by some leaders of the Labour Movement to halt the strike take-off was effectively crushed during two mass meetings on June 21, 1945. With those rallies, the moderates lost control and Imoudu with the radical wing of  labour  seized the leadership.

On June 21 and 22, 1945 the strike began in the railways, public works, printing and marine departments and the Lagos Municipal Council. It lasted forty-four days with over twenty-two unions participating. The strike was a success; strikers returned to work after an agreement with the colonialists that no worker will be victimsed, contemplated criminal charges against some strikers will be stopped, workers grievances will be looked into and that the ban on the West African Pilot would be lifted.

During his service to workers, Imoudu was elected president of a total seven national labour centres from 1949 to 1977 when  the Murtala-Obasanjo military regime issued the  Trade Unions (Disqualification of Certain Persons) Decree15 which banned him and ten other labour leaders from trade unionism. Imoudu went into politics rising to become a leader of the Peoples Redemption Party, PRP, founded by another former labour leader, Mallam Aminu Kano. When the more radical arm of the party which included Prof Wole Soyinka broke away, Imoudu became their leader.


The year 1966 was one of the most turbulent in the country’s history. The civilian administration which took over from the British colonialists on October 1, 1960 seemed to have run the country aground. Some army officers led by five majors thought the best option open to the country was a military coup. On January 15, they struck, in the name of the “Supreme Council of the Revolution of the Nigerian Armed Forces.”

The soldiers suspended the constitution, dissolved the regional governments and all assemblies and banned “all political, cultural, tribal and trade union activities, together with all demonstrations and unauthorised gatherings…”

The revolt was put down, but the civilian administration did not survive the crushing blows. The military led by General Aguyi-Ironsi assumed power. On July 29,1966 there was a counter coup and  Lt. Colonel Yakubu Jack Gowon became the new Head of State. On August 11, that is thirteen days after the coup that brought Gowon to power, his supporters got whiff of a planned coup against him. What was more, the alleged coup plotters were said to be meeting at an hotel on Ipodo Street near Ikeja bus stop in Lagos.

In a jiffy, armed soldiers headed for the hotel and sealed it up. Sure enough there were a number of men holding a meeting at the hotel. At the head of the table was Comrade Wahab Omorilewa Goodluck the 43­-year-old president of the Nigerian Trade Union Congress, NTUC.

Reviewing the strike action

What happened was that a strike had broken out at the Ikeja based Nigeria Enamels Company, NEWCO. And while Goodluck as General Secretary of the NEWCO workers was holding a meeting with the workers at the hotel to review the strike action and plan their next move, the company’s personnel manager, Mr. Joseph Abiodun, put his obviously fertile imagination to work on how to break the strike and prevent material losses to his bosses. He hit on the fantastic idea that given the explosive state of the country, if he reports to the military authorities that coup plotters were gathered to plan the toppling of Gowon, soldiers would quickly round up the striking workers leaders.

Mr. Abiodun rushed to the Ikeja Military Cantonment to report that the gathering being presided over by Goodluck was a coup plotters’meeting. He clearly did not realise the danger he was putting the workers and their leaders. While soldiers took up positions around the hotel and sealed up all adjacent streets to Ipodo, Goodluck and his men continued with their meeting although some of them observed that the noisy area had gone quiet.

When the armed soldiers broke into the meeting hall, some of the workers like Comrades A.O. Lawson Agomo escaped. The latter was actually shot at twice, but he disappeared into the crowd that had gathered in front of the hotel. Angry that some of the men escaped, the soldiers turned on the rest of the workers and started throwing them into army lorries. As the vehicles drove off, the workers were forced to stare at the floors of the lorries. When they were allowed to raise up their heads again, it was at the Ikeja Military Cantonment in Maryland.

The workers were ordered to remove all their clothes including pants while in the lorries and these were thrown outside the vehicles. As they alighted naked, it was into the hands of soldiers armed with horse whips who mounted “guards of honour” on both sides of each lorry.

The army officer who led the soldiers then pronounced death sentences for all the men unless they revealed their coup plot. Protestations of innocence merely angered the soldiers who ordered the workers to “Lying down” (lie down). Some of the unfriendly soldiers added “I don’t hear English, I hear gun”. The workers were so mercilessly flogged that some of them fainted. Goodluck was flogged despite his shouts that he was not a young man. In spite of this, the beatings continued until suddenly the soldiers stopped.


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